Interview with Simon Tam, The Slants20 min read

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Born and raised in San Diego, California, Simon Tam is the founder and basis of The Slants, one of the first American Dance rock bands in the world. He also leads The Slants Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides resources and mentorship for artists that incorporate activism into their work. He has earned many awards for his work as an author, musician, activist, and entrepreneur, including the Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association, the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award, and the Ovation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019, he published his memoir – Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker took on the Supreme Court. It was named one of the Best Books on the Constitution of all time by Book Authority and won an award for Best Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Simon continues to fight for justice by serving on multiple non-profit boards, developing innovative solutions to social problems, and sharing a message of radical optimism. And he’s done so much I can’t list everything in a minute. So please visit his website Simon tam.org or theslants.com to learn more about all the wonderful work that he does. 

JF Garrard (JF): Thanks Simon for taking the time to talk to us virtually during this COVID pandemic. Ricepaper is Canadian so I’m not sure how familiar our readers are with your work and your vision. Can we start off with you telling us a little bit about yourself who you are, what you do, why you do things?

 Simon Tam (ST): Sure. Oftentimes I like to say that I’m a troublemaker. I like to disrupt systems, conventions and try to provide different perspectives or different slant if you will. I used to think that my work was music since growing up all I wanted to do was play music but I realized that there was a larger vision behind that and that vision was to see a change in the world. To bring something to life that didn’t exist before. And to find an avenue for expression. So then I realized, hey it’s not just music, it’s also storytelling, it’s writing. It’s (similar to) all the different things that I do in the nonprofit world like this that don’t exist but I really think it ought to and figuring out what steps I need to do in order to make it happen. And so, my work has kind of appeared in a lot of different forms though myself, kind of, first and foremost, identify as a musician.

JF: Yes, I know your music, you’ve written a few books, you do talks all around the world and you have a nonprofit.  I stumble over this because in Canada we say not-for-profit but in the US it’s nonprofit. Is The Slants Foundation growing more now, because you are spending more time on this?

ST: In 2018, our band actually retired from live touring. I still do appearances on my own and I sometimes will do events with my guitarist, although, in the past year or so that really hasn’t happened much. So we’ve been able to kind of focus our time, our resources, and our energy on the foundation side of things which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time – to start my own nonprofit, to help benefit those other artists of Asian descent, help develop more sustainable and scalable arts careers, whether it’s music, writing, dance, theatre, or whatever form of expression that they might have. We provide mentorship and resources to help make that happen. 

JF: Is it mainly for musicians or is it other types of artists as well?

ST: No, it’s all forms of art. Last year for example we helped fund a photography project, a film, a dance-theater project, in addition to a couple of albums. It just kind of depends, we’re mostly looking for artists who are working with communities, in terms of bringing advocacy to their work, incorporating messages of activism, but in a way that’s not just like talking or singing about a problem. We really want to encourage folks to do it in a way that actually can advocate for systems transformation or policy change, and that oftentimes means working with a local organization or charity to make that happen.

JF: Your PR people were talking to me about the Asian American music video festival and AsianAmericanmovies.com. The Slants are releasing a bunch of videos on this and a documentary. How did this collaboration come about? Did you contact them or did they contact you?

ST: It was Quentin Lee. He is a filmmaker, director, writer and started AsianAmericanmovies.com.  We have been on each other’s radar for quite a number of years. We started working together in a more official capacity when he launched a web series. During the pandemic, he called to ask to use one of our songs, which we gladly provided to him. When he was talking about the launch of AsianAmericanmovies.com, he said, “Hey, would you be interested in having a whole channel just dedicated to all the music videos and content that we developed over the years with The Slants?”  I told him, “sure, we actually filmed a whole documentary about us traveling and touring in Taiwan so let’s include that as well.” He was aware of The Slants Foundation work and I thought, instead of making this exclusive to our band, what if we developed a platform to help other up and coming artists highlight their work, and we can help curate, maybe a bunch of music videos or something like that? That’s when the idea for the AV festival was kind of born and we thought this is cool, let’s keep it throughout the year. Let’s choose in groups of eight music videos produced by, various folks of Asian Pacific Islander descent, we can kind of talk about their work, we can help highlight it and let other people know about the amazing talent that’s within the community.

JF: That’s pretty cool. Now referencing the documentary,  when did you go to Taiwan?

ST: That was in 2016, I believe.

JF: How did it feel to go back as an Asian American? Are you very fluent (in Mandarin)? I remember going to Taiwan and someone told me to “slur your Cantonese” and that did not work out at all for me. It was a culture shock, for me to go back to Asia.

ST: I loved it. Our band was based in Portland, Oregon, and a lot of times people talk about Portland as a foodie city. Well, Taiwan is like a foodie country! It is unparalleled in terms of just the quality of food that you can have all over the place. I’ve been all over the world and it’s probably my favorite place to eat my way through. Going there as an Asian American band is interesting though, because all of a sudden, nobody called us the “Asian American band.” Whereas in the US that’s how we refer to it all the time. In Asia, we were the “American band.”

A couple of us do speak Mandarin, I speak rather poorly, but my guitarist is born and raised in China. We also have a friend of ours who also is on The Slants Foundation Board right now who was acting as our tour guide. He lived in Taiwan for many years, so it was great to have somebody who just kind of knew the cities and systems quite well to help guide us through. I often say one of the best ways to learn a language is just to simply be in this space where you’re just immersed in it, similar to the two weeks that we were there. It was amazing to see how my own mannerisms changed from the beginning to the end of the trip. It was a lot of fun. I really loved it. There were a lot of expatriates and local Taiwanese folks who spoke English as well so getting around was actually pretty easy.

It was probably the first time that we built a tour that wasn’t just structured on us playing every single night because I want to time off in between so we can just explore and have a great time. The film we created was kind of a reflection of that. There are moments where there are concert clips, but it really feels more like an episode of No Reservations but with a much better soundtrack and us, going to places and eating and checking out really amazing historical sites.

JF: Did you visit any of your ancestral homes at all? My sister was on a documentary trip when she went back to China and she found the village where my grandma grew up and stuff like that.

ST: No, I’m the only person in the band of Taiwanese descent. But I didn’t grow up in Taiwan, I was born and raised in San Diego. That being said, I did end up meeting family that was there; one of my aunts, and my second cousin for the first time. We’ve been friends on Facebook for many years but never actually interacted. It was really great to see my family there. I didn’t visit Taiwan often as a kid, but in family photos and video footage of a trip from when I was three or four years old, things were very different. It went from this tiny little island that resembled a fishing town to a huge major super-modern metropolis, with some of the most cutting-edge technology that’s out there so it was just radically different just for my expectations.

JF: I remember going to Hong Kong when I was four. I was born and raised in Toronto in Canada. I remember my mom taking me back and I asked her how come in Hong Kong, Chinatown doesn’t end?  It goes on and on!

I read in an interview that in 2012, your band was offered $4 million by a record label with a condition that the lead singer is replaced with a Caucasian one. And I’m sad to say that I’m not surprised, but with all the wokeness that’s happening today do you think things have improved for Asian Americans in the music industry? At the same time, I see people like superstars from China such as Kris Wu and Lay Zhang with their rap albums, and they come with multimillion-dollar music videos. They are a different animal. They’re not in the same genre as The Slants because they do mostly rap and hip hop, but have things improved since you’ve started to now, do you think?

 ST: I’d like to say that, yes it’s improved by marginal degrees. You still don’t see any kind of mainstream Asian American acts doing rock and roll. Yes, Kpop is getting popular, but it’s really seen as an imported culture. People say, “oh that’s from Korea or, Japanese, etc and we’re bringing it in.” It’s treated like those people are “Asians,” they’re “other people,” not necessarily like homegrown acts. I think that there’s a lot of doubt over the kind of marketability of Asian American acts being accepted. You know, we do see a number of people that have been wildly successful. They just don’t have to put their Asian American identity out front. Such as Bruno Mars or Darren Criss. They’re obviously doing very very well for themselves so most people don’t even think they’re biracial, and they can emphasize the other parts of their identity.

 JF: I see in a way when you’re trying to succeed what’s the most advantageous card you can play?  If they are biracial, they don’t necessarily have to play the Asian card, they can play something else.

ST: Yes. I don’t blame them for trying to make a living and I get it. To a certain extent, they have PR folks that help shape their careers. But I will say that the traditional gatekeepers for the entertainment industry have kind of slowly been losing their power over the last few years, especially with social media and the rise of independent platforms. It’s really provided a way for other folks to kind of take their own power and create their own systems. We see a lot of Asian American artists who are doing quite well for themselves in the independent circuit, they’re making a sustainable living. They might not be top of the Billboard share charts, necessarily, but they’re slowly demonstrating that “hey, we can do this and we can make money and we can make a viable income from this.” I think, as a result, many labels are starting to take a second look. It’s the same thing like when Fresh Off the Boat was killing it, Crazy Rich Asians was dominating the charts. All of a sudden, all these studios were thinking, “oh, maybe we should have some Asian people on our TV shows, movies now.”

JF: I’m still waiting for the Marvel movie to come out!” 

ST: It’s coming soon, it’s got a Canadian in there!

JF: Yes, Simu! Hopefully, they’ll do well and open more doors. I know there was a Hallmark movie with an Asian lead in this Christmas comedy.

ST: That’s right, and more Asians in big films too. I do acting on the side and I see way more casting calls and roles, than ever before. I mean, sometimes it’s still very generic – we need someone of Asian descent, or they can also be Hispanic or black, but that’s their Asian character. They also want someone who’s age, 15 to 50, so you know that role is not like a very well developed character, but they’re trying to add some more color to whatever productions are being made.  I think the more this happens, the more it’s normalized, and the more we see roles that are not stereotypical roles. It’ll make it slightly easier for the next person and I’d like to think that the same thing is happening in the music world as well. The more we start seeing a diverse set of acts across multiple genres, the more it will be easier for the next person who’s coming through because they don’t necessarily face some of the same obstacles, or at least if they do, hopefully, the road will be slightly smoother for them.

 JF: You had written a memoir – Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker took on the Supreme Court. Can you talk a little bit about your advocacy work and the battle that you had with the Supreme Court and why it was such an important fight for you?

ST: Sure. A lot of that kind of struggle originated just from the most casual conversations! I met an attorney and he asked, “Hey, do you have a registered trademark for the band’s name?” I said, “this sounds like a very expensive thing,” but he says, “No, it’s just a few hundred dollars. It’ll take six months and the whole thing will be over. But you really need it, to be able to have a viable music career, it’s important to protect your rights.” So I said, “Alright, let’s go for it!” That process ended up costing me a whole lot more and taking up almost ten years of my life because the US government said “hey, the name of your band, “the slant,” it’s actually offensive to Asian people.” We said, “but we are Asian people who work in the Asian American community and we do anti-racism work!”

It became this really long, back and forth legal battle for years and years. Through that process, I learned that the law they were using against me, had been around about seventy years and it turns out that it was primarily only used against communities of color, and members of the LGBTQ community because we tend to be the kinds of people that re-appropriate language. We take a formerly offensive term or stingy imagery and turn it upside down. But it turns out we were prime targets under this law that was supposedly trying to make the marketplace less offensive for people. We decided to challenge this and, year after year we continued to appeal until we got to a federal court where we finally won. And then the government turned it around, it sued me and took me to the Supreme Court, but we won there unanimously. And we were able to overturn this law and finally open things up so that folks from marginalized communities could finally get the same level, the same equal playing field as other folks, other corporations, to kind of choose what’s appropriate for themselves.

JF: It sounds like it was a very challenging endeavor! I mean, to have the government sue you!

ST: I would not wish it upon anybody, it is. Yes, it’s tough, you hear about cases that go to the Supreme Court or at least major law cases and, and we’ll all hear about the arguments for or against and the ending, but we rarely understand what it’s like for the person actually going through it. Over the last few years, I ended up speaking at a ton of lawyer events, law conventions, and law schools. They’re always asking, “what’s it like being in the room (of the Supreme Court)?” Even these lawyers and experts in law, don’t even understand it so I wanted to make sure that story was captured (by writing the book).

Hopefully, the book provides a little bit more empathy for folks who are going through this kind of process, and exposes that this is how the law works – we have laws that on paper they sound really good, but in practice, how they’re enforced can actually be extremely problematic. I wanted to showcase that through my memoir, and also you don’t hear a lot about what it’s like to be an independent musician, especially a musician of color, so I wanted to provide this contrast when I go back and forth between talking about touring, playing shows, weird things we encountered like having to reject a record label offer on the premise of replacing my lead singer someone who’s white, all that stuff. After the shows on the tour bus, I’m reading legal documents and trying to fight this other thing and trying to balance that while still having a regular human life. Just trying to be a person, you know! It was a really fun project to work on and I’m really proud of it, I’m glad that the stories are kind of now being shared and hopefully providing a glimpse to the people of what it was actually like.

JF: Why don’t we have a little bit of a break now. Well, break for me. I’m going to ask you to do a short reading from your book Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker took on the Supreme Court. 

ST: Sure. The passage here is from when I was in Washington DC to go to a federal court. 

JF: Wow, that was really eye-opening, and I really like that the writing and there were so many tragedies. Did you get your name corrected before you went to the Supreme Court? (In the reading Simon talks about how his name was misspelled on his birth certificate.)

ST:  The Supreme Court is interesting in that they’re still using the spelling from my birth certificate, so I kind of had to keep that misspelling for taxes and other important government documents, but also, the Supreme Court brief shed some light on the carelessness of how they treat identity. The official opinion from the Supreme Court actually listed me as the lead singer of the band, even though I’m not. I’ve never been the lead singer of a band. And I’m like, is it because you can’t tell us apart? Or is it because you can’t even trouble yourself to do a quick search on Google, you know, and they actually got that piece of data because the trademark office, the entity that we’re fighting against also wrongly listed me as the lead singer, and it just shows they don’t really care that much about the person. They’re thinking about larger legal issues, but don’t care about people who are at the heart of loss. You end up perpetuating these kinds of inequities that will affect people in many different profound ways and they don’t have to think about what it means for them.

For me it’s a different lived reality, for example, they can say, “if we get it wrong he can always come and correct us,” which sounds good, in theory, but it took me over a decade to correct the government who assumed that the name of my band was racist. So for ten years while trying to pursue a music career, I had an actual government department calling me racist, and that affects me in all kinds of ways including my own anti-racism work. They don’t have to think about what that means, even though they were the ones that incorrectly identified me as such (racist), but it just shows that the importance of trying to change these systems to actually reflect the identities of the people who are affected by them, so that we don’t have these kinds of mistakes continue to hurt people in unexpected ways, ways that you know are oftentimes not reported on because it’s so complex. It’s difficult to write a news story around it or do a quick sound bite around it.

JF: Your book was independently published right or did you go to a publisher?

ST: We shopped it around for a while, I had two different (potential) publishers and what’s interesting is that, unfortunately, the publishing industry is very much like the entertainment industry, there’s still a lot of gatekeepers. I was told, on a couple of occasions “we already have an Asian writer.” That came from one of the biggest four biggest publishers in the world, they said that to me, and I said, “yes, but they write fiction.”  It is a completely different genre. It’s also a different human being!  I thought I don’t know how many male writers you have or if there are problems with signing up more? It was just mind-boggling. We went through these experiences a couple of different times and met a book editor who said, “Oh, this thing’s really important, I adopted someone from China.”

We were experiencing these kinds of comments and I thought, “No one should have to experience this again.” So, I started my own publishing company, figured out how to do it step by step, created it and this became the test book. Now I could help publish other writers, particularly from those underrepresented backgrounds, so they didn’t have to kind of go through this weird, microaggression process. For me, it’s kind of like the nonprofit, I just want to help people with expression, get these stories and experiences out, so whatever I can do to ease the process I will gladly do. This year I’m helping publish a book of poetry for an upcoming poet.  We’ve published a couple of books on traditional folk tales. I’m just trying to get the stories out there, and it’s kind of a funny thing. Kind of like my band, the system isn’t working for us and it’s actually creating harm, then what can we do to subvert that entirely.

JF: Yes, I understand. I’ve been told by a pretty famous editor that my name “JF Garrard” was stupid. Garrard is actually my husband’s last name, but I thought it would be easier to use an acronym because I write a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so I wanted to hide the fact that I’m female and Asian. He was telling me to stop, but I’ve been using this name all along so I don’t think I will stop.

ST: Well, that’s your name! JK Rowling used initials for the same purpose. It’s kind of a common convention for fantasy and sci-fi writers to use initials.

JF: This is all the time we have today. Thank you very much for being so generous with us by sharing your story, and I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors. 

ST: Thank you!

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AsianAmericanMovies.com (AAM.tv) will be exclusively streaming The Slants Collection, an ultimate collection of music videos from The Slants’ discography, as well as a 40-minute documentary feature of the band on tour in Taiwan. This streaming event of their music videos and tour documentary will be live on AsianAmericanMovies.com starting on January 12, 2021. 

 For the video of this interview, visit https://youtu.be/TcmETpnoY3s

 

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